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Keeping in touch despite a pandemic

Organization still reaching out to youth

Submitted photo Vienna resident Katie Morrison, 26, left, is a big sister to Alaysia Bray, 14, of Youngstown, as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters Mahoning Valley program. The program connects local adults with area youth to take part in local events.

GIRARD — Despite the stay-at-home orders in mid-March, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mahoning Valley adapted and continues to help kids.

Locally, the organization has seen an increase in volunteers and mentors as the pandemic continues — particularly more male participants.

Big Brothers Big Sisters wants to make sure the pandemic doesn’t get in the way of building important relationships, such as between Vienna resident Katie Morrison, 26, and 14-year-old Alaysia Bray.

Morrison is among area adults serving in the program. She said her experience serving as a “big sister” to Bray is nothing short of amazing.

“My motivation for becoming a mentor is based around my line of work,” she said. Since graduating from Youngstown State University, she’s worked in a behavioral health settings across Ashtabula, Mahoning and Trumbull counties. “Because of my professional work, I know how important it is for young people to have consistent, trusting and understanding adults in their life,” Morrison said.

She said developmental research shows that having even one caring adult in a child’s life can impact dramatically and even help buffer against whatever adversity kids may face in their lives.

INNOVATION

During this pandemic, Big Brothers Big Sisters suggested that people look for innovative ways to keep in touch.

“We thought it was really important, especially for some of our kids not being in school, not having many outlets for themselves, that they have that connection with their big brother or big sister,” said Marguerite Felice, program coordinator for the Mahoning Valley agency that serves Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

Becky Robinson, site-based coordinator, said the office had to shut down in the spring as everyone worked from home for four months.

“We had thought it was going to be short-termed, and by summer we wanted to have the bigs and littles do more together,” she said.

Felice said the organization stayed in contact with the little brothers and sisters virtually.

“We used Zoom and did interviews for volunteers that way and made matches virtually,” she said. They’ve even used video chat to cook and make crafts.

Felice said some matches earlier this year began virtually when things were shut down and people used Face Time and calling on the phone and other online ways to stay in touch with their little brother or sister.

“Everyone did the best they could to communicate the best ways they could. We gave everyone the option to do what they wanted to be most comfortable. The majority of people at least tried to connect in person during this time,” Felice said.

She said at the end of May the organization began allowing in-person, outdoor meetings between the bigs and littles.

MORE MEN

Felice said what’s most surprising is more men signed up as big brothers during the pandemic. The organization usually has more big sisters participating.

“From March to May, it was slow getting volunteers and then in the summer we had a lot of people sign up as volunteers. There was a big influx of volunteers — especially more men. There are more men now than I have ever seen in more than 10 years,” Felice said.

She said Brian Higgins, program director, thought perhaps the men had more time to volunteer, with less sports taking place.

Felice said they are working on a collaboration with Kent State University to recruit student athletes as mentors working with youth in Youngstown.

Robinson said there always has been more women as Big Sisters — so to get more Big Brothers is great.

“Even with the influx, we still always need more Big Brothers,” she said.

Felice said anyone age 18 and older wanting to volunteer can call the office. They are asked to make a one-year commitment and spend six hours per month with a youngster, provide transportation and take part in an interview process.

She said the bigs can take the littles to places that the parents feel comfortable with, such as sports, entertainment, music and dining locations.

“We try to match similar personalities and compatibility and look for locations that are local such as a person from Warren not having to drive to Cleveland. This is about building a trusting relationship and being a reliable, positive role model for a child.” Felice said.

A GOOD MATCH

Morrison said when she was matched with Alaysia, “It was really exciting. We talked with each other and figured out we had many of the same interests. She has such a good head on her shoulders — much of that I believe comes from the relationship with her amazing mother, Tanisha.

Despite the pandemic, Alaysia and I have still been able to meet up and have fun experiences like making crafts, getting food and even sending greeting cards to nursing homes.”

Felice said the bigs are never a parent, but an older sibling and mentor and child’s cheerleader — providing a lot of positive reinforcement.

Robinson herself serves as big sister and said even couples can be matched with a child.

“For me, I wanted to have someone in my life who could go places and do things closest to where I lived. I have I had a little who was 15 and who will be graduating this year. I introduced her to volunteering and music events,” she said.

The two volunteered at church dinners and the two went to McKinley Memorial Library lawn concerts, a car show, library events and bike rides.

Felice said the parents have the children take part voluntarily with the child wanting to be in the program.

“The children need to want to be part of it or it will not work” Robinson said.

Robinson said she also leads a program where high school students serve as mentors to elementary students. She said 120 students were involved and then COVID-19 hit. Schools taking part are Bristol, Lordstown, Sebring and Warren Jefferson PK-8.

Robinson said she and school guidance counselors work together to match high school students with elementary pupils.

In 1977, the organization officially became Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and operates in every state. For information on BBBS opportunities call 330-545-0002 or email at www.bbbsmv.com.

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